Category Archives: Have You Met _______?

Start Where You Are, Do What You Can.

Two years ago today I started my yearlong quest for spiritual enlightenment, a sense of belonging and to find “the thread of humanity that binds us together.” I found it, it’s there. No question—we are more alike than we are different. People are wonderful, people are compassionate, people are good people.

I shared that first year with you earnestly, sometimes desperately and self-indulgently and always with a bit of slapstick comedy thrown in. This last year, I’ve stayed away, processing and observing and reeling. As promised, I moved to Istanbul. As expected, I kidnapped a kitten off the street and made it live with me. I write, I edit, I dabble in yoga and Turkish suffixes. I make new friends and try to hold on to the ones I left in New York. All in all I’m doing great— confident as I strut around Istanbul in my skinny jeans, last night’s sock bulging out around my calf. I haven’t changed much. I promise I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to introduce you to someone really special and really hungry.

This is Farhan. He is my friend and like most of my friends in Istanbul he is Syrian. And like most Syrians, he had to leave his country. He is fantastic, also like most Syrians I’ve met in Istanbul. He is warm, sincere, creative and fluent in absolutely fake French. He makes movies; he gives the best hugs, and will make you laugh about one second after you meet him. He makes jokes about the time the Security Forces arrested him and his father, and that other time he was kidnapped and beaten by the opposition in a case of mistaken identity. “I can’t win!” If he’d had a chance to finish his studies, he would have been an archeologist by now.

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This winter was really hard for him. The love of his life, also Syrian, also a shining example of a human, was given residency in France and had no choice but to leave him, for now. Their separation was unbearable to watch. He felt, “like I’m in a cage,” and at first, he rattled the bars, jumping from one impossible option, to another—“I’ll go by boat, I’ll go through Bulgaria, I’ll go back to Syria.” And then, he was defeated. For several months work and home were the only places he could be found. Dragging him out for tea or dinner was nearly impossible.

A few weeks ago something changed—Farhan became inspired. He’s traveling to Gaziantep to make a short film there, he’s reaching out to people, he’s asking for help and he’s on a hunger strike. That last detail is scary. He has now not eaten for two weeks. At the same time he is still going to work, still making jokes and still giving great hugs, though there’s noticeably less of him to embrace.

The reason for Farhan’s hunger strike is multilayered. The ambitious and immediate reason is to bring attention to and stop the seige in Syria , in areas like Daraya, Douma, East Harasta and Moadamiyah. Without access to medical supplies or food, the people in those areas are dying. If you follow the news, you know that today aid was set to be delivered to besieged areas, but without the support of Assad’s government the international community got scared off. The last time humanitarian aid got close enough to Daraya government Air Forces shelled the area where civilians had gathered in anticipation of the convoy.

Farhan knows that if the starvation of more than a million people won’t move the world to act, his own hunger doesn’t stand a chance at convincing any government. What Farhan really wants is to get people to acknowledge what is happening in the besieged areas in Syria. “I just want people to know.”

Farhan’s hunger strike has had a different effect on me. It showed me a tangible, inescapable consequence of my own inaction. He had told me about his strike  just two days after he started, almost two weeks ago.I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t do the little that he asked me to “maybe you can share it on social media, something, just to let people know.” I thought about him every day. I talked about it with  our mutual friends and my mom but I didn’t do anything because I thought I couldn’t. I’ve been hibernating. I don’t even remember my Instagram password, and is Twitter still a thing? I’ve hardly been on social media let alone built an engaged audience that could have any impact. SoI did nothing, while Farhan’s already slight frame became slighter.

Two days ago, my friend Claire was over for a visit when Farhan dropped by. He looked so small but still bright-eyed. I offered him juice as as Claire and I sipped wine. The last time Farhan had been over he had wanted a glass of wine, but the only bottle I had at home had a measly few sips left ad I was too embarrassed to offer so little.  So we both drank beer, which neither of us really wanted. And here he was again, in my living room nursing an orange juice while Claire and I drank from our full glasses. I don’t like to think of myself as an asshole, but I really felt like one in that moment.

To not offer Farhan that half (quarter?) glass of wine because it was less than what I wanted to offer is similar to me not doing anything to help my friend because I felt my power was equally miniscule. Neither time did I confer with Farhan to find out if he thought it was enough.

I know Syria seems too far away to ever really reach you, but if it happened to me, it can happen to you. I hope it happens to you. My Syrian friends, including Farhan and his accident-prone, bubbly baby sister are as close to my heart as the ones I’ve met in New York, Paris or London. They’re the kind of people that make me look good by association. I need them, I love them and I wince anytime someone in the news discounts their worth, denies their right to seek refuge and education or treats them with disdain and suspicion. And I worry for their families, their future, and their ability to just live.

Today I remembered one of my favorite sayings—the law of floatation wasn’t discovered by contemplating the sinking of things. I realized that I have you guys, I have this sacred space and this amazing community that I know will listen. I can tell you about this person who is so dear to me and I can ask you to do what I couldn’t do until today—whatever you can, no matter how big or small you think it is.

Can I ask you to do one small, tiny thing right now? Can you leave a comment for Farhan here, or on the Unlikely Pilgrim FB page? It can even be an emoji, a small token acknowledging that you know that you are more alike than you are different. Maybe you have a question for him about Syria, about his hugging technique or archeology. Ask away, and I will pass it along.

Maybe you can take some time, like I did and find your own way to support the friends you didn’t know you had halfway around the world.

If you want to do more, here’s a note from Farhan:

“In solidarity with the besieged areas and to highlight the suffering of the people inside Syria, we, a group of Syrian youth are on a hunger strike until the siege is lifted in all regions in Syria. This protest may be without any result if it is not accompanied by media and civil support from people in all countries who can put pressure on their governments and help the Syrian people who have survived through 5 years of war. The hunger strike is one of the means of solidarity with the besieged areas. There are many other ways in which you can show you support for the Syrian people. Spread the word through social media, by publishing articles that show what is happening in Syria, making videos that show your solidarity or by organizing demonstrations and sit-ins to put pressure on governments to help break the siege in Syria. “

 

 

 

 

 

What’s In a Name? Misheard Lyrics On the Camino.

  
A fellow pilgrim snapped this photo of Christine pointing out Venus to me, as we watched the sun set over the wheat fields of the Meseta plateau, or as we call it– the Bread Pan. Two weeks of round the clock contact can make or break a friendship, luckily for us it has been the former and we now know and accept each other in all of our imperfect glory. 

We spend most of our days singing, belting and humming. Sometimes it’s a chorus of a Beatles song at dawn, paling into silence along with the stars once we realize the chorus is all we actually know. Occasionally Christine puts up with a rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise, and unfortunately I do know all of the words to that gem. Ever so often we will manage to go through a song in its entirety, like Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You  though this is also unfortunate for the pilgrim whose broken body won’t carry him out of earshot fast enough. We have sang everything from Gershwin to Rihanna in varying degrees of off key-ness and it has been oh so fun.

One of my favorite things about C is her complete inability to properly identify the names of musicians, actresses, or songs while still enthusiastically conjuring up what she must suspect are completely wrong identities for all three. Luckily, I have become an expert at deciphering the actual person or lyric or song title so that when she says “Trombone Guy” she means “Piano Man.”

The other day when we were trying to think of a Michael Jackson song to sing she beamed and said “Annie Get Your Gun!” Not so much the name of a song by the King of Pop as the name of a Wild West themed musical from the 1940s.

“You mean Billie Jean?”

“Yes!”

That actually happened. I know, it’s amazing. Both, that she confused an 80s classic with a mid-century one and that I was able to figure it out. Allow me to demonstrate the workings of one sun stroked  pilgrim’s mind.

First, C though of Jeanie instead of Jean. Jeanie became Janie and that brought her to Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Because Christine loves musicals more than she loves Aerosmith and Mr. Jackson combined, the word gun triggered the memory of show tunes and sharp shooting Annie and yet another gleeful, completely inaccurate title. To know her is to love her. 

It’s wonderful to be able to read someone that well, and in just two weeks no less, because really our friendship, though promising was still in its infancy before we came here. That gift, the gift of timetraveling to sisterhood via unapologetic musical butchering is one I’ve only ever found while hobbling my way to Santiago. 

Weekends With Torre

SATURDAY, 10 AM

Sitting on the toilet lid, I adjusted my towel and the angle of the phone so that it looked like I was naked on the john. I smiled and waved at the camera and satisfied with the result, hit “send to contact.” In a musty hotel room on the other side of the bathroom door, the lucky recipient of the toilet selfie, author Torre DeRoche sat on a bed with a bag of frozen peas tied to her left foot when her phone signaled the arrival of a picture message. Normally I would not recommend sending what appears to be a nude photo taken mid-bowel movement to someone whose professional endorsement you’d like to attain, but in my defense, she sent me one first.

That was Saturday and the start of our second day in Piacenza, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets filled with well-dressed Italians riding around on bicycles or walking their groomed dogs. Torre and I were pausing in Piacenza indefinitely after after she’d hurt her foot on our third day of walking the Via Francigena together. The two of us had met only once before in New York and though that first encounter had been pleasant, it was not indicative of the kind of bond we would form after just a few days. I’m talking about the kind of bond that makes one comfortable eating canned tuna on the floor in front of another person, which is what I have a recording of Torre doing and it goes like this:

“Can you tell us what we’re doing here Torre?”

“We are eating tuna on the floor.”

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SATURDAY 12 PM

Torre’s pained hobble to the corner café for cappuccinos made it clear that we would need to extend our stay by at least another night.  Now we just needed to let the management of our accommodation know. The problem?  Our place was less hotel and more abandoned residential building with neither a reception desk nor even other guests, as far as we could tell.

“I can’t get through,” I had been calling the only contact number we had without success while Torre and I lunched on baguette, prosciutto, mozzarella and white anchovies in our room.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just stayed here and they discovered us like a week from now?” Torre asked, reaching for the jar of anchovies. “Shit!”

Anchovy oil spilled all over the tablecloth and we jumped up to do damage control; Torre tried to mop up the mess with napkins, while I grabbed a box of salt and poured a mound onto the table. I had hoped it would soak up the oil but mostly I created an additional mess to clean up.

We looked around—our hiking clothes were hanging off chairs and bed posts, the table was covered in bread crumbs, salt and oil slicks and the hotel’s white towels had streaks of puke green from Torre’s leaky bag of peas.  What could we possibly say should someone from the hotel open the door right now?

“One more night?” Torre’s high pitch was meant to feign innocence to the phantom hotel employee we were both imagining in the doorway. But of course, the evidence of her complicity in our domestic chaos was too strong for any person with the gift of sight to overlook, even an imaginary one and we collapsed in our chairs with hearty, sidesplitting laughter. Every time I thought I was done, I saw a normal person walking into the absurdity of what had become our status quo and though I felt bad for them, I couldn’t help letting out another stream of giggles as I pictured how uncomfortable and scared they would be.

For the rest of the day, every time a hiking boot found its way onto the bed or another towel was stained green, one of us raised an index finger and repeated, “one more night?”

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SATURDAY 3PM

Once the sending and receiving of naked bathroom photos had lost its appeal and boredom began to set in, I came up with the idea to go and find us a board game. Several books and toy stores later I hadn’t found so much as a deck of cards but before coming home empty-handed I decided to sneak in a visit to the Duomo, Piacenza’s 12th century cathedral. I must have lost track of time as I wandered among carved columns, boxes of calcified relics and empty confessionals because by the time I stepped out into the street, I had received another message, with a more joyful and somehow more naked Torre.  The appeal of the toilet selfie hadn’t been lost after all and I ran back to the last toy store I visited and took a photo next to a toy bathroom set to the horror of the store clerk and the children.

“On my way home now,“ I added.

“Is that a tiny toilet next to your head?” Torre wrote back.

 

SATURDAY 7PM

Torre sat at the table soaking her foot in a pasta pot. The water was laced with green crystals, which had dissolved and now smelled like we were embalming her appendage rather than healing it.  This was ironic because though Torre had asked me to buy her Epsom salts, what I brought back (with no hidden motives) were salts meant to banish unpleasant foot odor.

Breathing through my mouth, I told Tore about what I’d seen in the Duomo.

“There was this glass box with a what I think was an actual body just dressed to the nines.  Do you think that’s possible, that there’s an actual person in there?”

“Probably.”’

“That’s so weird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Whoever’s in there is wearing gauzy gloves and I think you can see his finger bones!”

Our dead saint discussion was interrupted when we heard a key in the door.  The moment we had been imagining had come, the manager was here, and not only was the room unrecognizable but it also smelled like death and Torre sat with her foot in a cooking pot.

“Bonjourno! One more night?” The phrase we had been practicing all day came out of my mouth before I could think of anything better to say to the man surveying us with curiosity. This was absolutely the exact situation in which I preferred not knowing what was being said. We handed him fifty Euros and took some fresh towels in case we ran out of things to ruin.

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SUNDAY 10 AM

Torre woke up the next morning feeling much better and we decided to branch out and have our coffees two long blocks away at an outside table on a pedestrian shopping street. While we were on our first taste of cappuccino foam, the Piacenzans sitting around us were well into their morning wine, a Sunday ritual I’d noticed in other parts of Italy.

We were enjoying watching the kitten-heeled female population of the city weave in and out of our line of vision when I blurted out the following: “What if you’re just a figment of my imagination and I made you up so I don’t have to be alone anymore?”

Torre turned and stared right at me. I felt my stomach drop. Like a lovesick schoolboy, I said too much too fast and freaked out the object of my affection by crossing a line that even she, who eats tuna on the floor, respected.

Finally Torre spoke. “Can I just tell you, I’ve already thought the same thing about you? Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like I’m talking to myself.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to go see the dead guy in the Duomo after this?”

“Sure.”

 

 

SUNDAY, 12 PM

It just so happened that we showed up to leer at the body of a respected saint in the city’s holiest place during Sunday mass. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while we shuffled past pious Italian grandmothers, but our anonymity, had we any in the first place, was lost when I almost knocked over a statue of Jesus along with the velvet roping meant to keep idiots like myself away from the son of God.  To be honest, the assault on Jesus was not even the most wrath-inducing thing about our appearance at the service. I think that honor went to our tank tops, Torre’s short shorts and my floor-length yet transparent skirt.  When to the relief of the congregation we made our exit, we noticed a sign on the door showing two figures wearing pretty much our exact ensembles with a big X through them.

“So now that we’re done with our naked romp through the church, want to get some gelato?” This time it was Torre who said what I had already been thinking.

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SUNDAY 3PM

If you were upset earlier because you weren’t planning on reading about bathrooms today, don’t blame me, blame my friend Stefano—the original toilet selfie messenger and the man who was coming down from the north of Italy to spend what remained of Sunday with us. Earlier in the week Stef had sent me a birthday greeting with a photo of himself smiling and waving, bathed in the unmistakable fluorescent lighting of a bathroom. Stef’s face showed no signs of embarrassment or even awareness of there being anything strange about sending someone a shirtless salutation from the toilet in the middle of the night.

Stefano took us to lunch in the Piazza Cavalli, and we filled him in on our adventures and showed him the slew of photos he had inspired over a plate of parmagiaono, bresola and arugula.  Stefano is an incredibly caring and giving man, and not just when it comes to photography inspiration and his lightness diluted our madness in a very psychologically sound way as we talked about books and ligaments, love at first sight and gelato.

 

SUNDAY 5PM

Torre’s foot began acting up again so Stef and I sent her home while we scoured the streets looking for the one pharmacy that’s open on Sunday to get our patient some Arnica cream and some painkillers. This should surprise no one, but we made a detour to the bathroom of a café to check in with Torre via a text message.  At first we couldn’t decide what was worse, explaining to the staff why we were piling into the single bathroom together or letting them find a suitable explanation on their own. In the end we decided it was best to leave something to their imaginations, though this approach may have been more suitable when Torre and I had been selecting our church outfits.

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SUNDAY 10 PM

After dinner at a tavern sharing plates of local specialties like ravioli with stinging nettles and spinach we said long and warm goodbyes in front of our empty apartment building.

Torre and I had decided that on Monday we would look for a used bike to buy so she could ride alongside me while her foot got better. It was an inspired plan and we were optimistic as we were getting ready for bed.

I thought back to lunch when Stefano had been telling us about a scene in a memoir he was reading. The author, a woman traveling through Australia met with a spiritual man in a cave who said to her, “Do you know why we are here? Because we have planned this meeting between us millions and millions of years ago.”

The idea that we choose what happens to us in this life really appeals to me. It’s a way to gain back some control when you feel powerless. It could be an incentive to trust that even in the worst of times, there is a deeper purpose that your eternal self put there, assuming of course that your eternal self isn’t a masochist asshole. In my own life, I have had a thousand moments that were too perfectly timed and effortless to seem anything but orchestrated, like this meeting with Torre and our weekend in Piacenza. Lying in bed, I could picture the two of us billions of years ago, two spirits hovering over a couple of beach chairs, bronzing our souls in the eternal sun of the pre-life.

“Hey, you know that lifetime where we’re both writers and you’re Australian, but raised by Americans and I’m Russian but raised in the States?” I’d say.

“Yeah?” Torre would ask, turning over to get a bit of color on her paler side.

“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if instead of our original plan you came out to Italy when I’m doing that walking thing and then we ended up stuck in this Italian town for a few days eating gelato and bonding over bathroom humor?”

“That’s so weird, I was JUST thinking that.”

Snapshots from the Via Francigena Part 1

I have now walked over 800 km and yet I am only halfway done with the Via Francigena. This first month of my pilgrimage around the world has come and gone in a blink of an eye and though I am so different from the person I was when I set out in June, it really does feel like I am only halfway through. A pilgrimage is like a prescribed course of treatment and though I can only guess which maladies this journey is supposed to cure, I know that I am not through taking my medicine yet.

Here’s something I’ve figured out recently— discovering new parts of yourself doesn’t mean that you can see yourself more clearly.  As is often the case, answers just bring on more questions; when you realize you’ve been wrong about some things, you start to wonder what else you’ve been wrong about. I’ve always thought of myself as a city slicker, but now that I’ve hiked the length of a country and am about to cross the Alps on foot, can I really still call myself that?  Or now that I’ve eaten my body weight in croissants in a month can I still call myself fit? And what about the fact that my pants are significantly roomier—is there even a word for someone who loses weight by eating baked goods? Am I an anomaly? Are there others like me?

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Before I fall headfirst into a week of Swiss chocolate and steep mountains (hopefully not literally) I’d like to share some of the most memorable moments from the last month.  None of these were life changing, but together they have carved out a path that I know will open up a whole other world for me.

Canterbury, 0 km

The night before starting the Via Francigena, I dreamt of bundles of fragrant eucalyptus, bunches of dusty miller, burgundy berries and blush pink roses appearing at my doorstep. I knew exactly what to do with them, making bouquets and filling vase after vase after vase. The sense of abundance swelled as more and more flowers appeared out of nowhere until mid-bouquet, I woke up.

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That morning, standing in Canterbury Cathedral’s Roman crypt Colin and I received a pilgrim’s blessing from Canon Clare Edwards. As she lit a candle, Canon Clare explained that the rite is carried out here because it is the oldest part of the Cathedral and a blessing performed in the heart of the cathedral might have more potency. As a subtle, sweet smell from the white stock in a vase near the altar reached my nose, Canon Clare began to read:

“May flowers spring up where your feet touch the earth. May the feet that walked before you bless your every step. May the weather that’s important be the weather of your heart. May your prayers be like flowers strewn for other pilgrims…”

 

Calais, 30km

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While Colin took photos of August Rodin’s “Les Bourgeois de Calais” I hid behind the sculpture and quietly dug into his half of the caramel chocolate bar we’d brought on the ferry over from Dover. Obviously, I wasn’t quiet enough because Colin busted me mid-bite and snapped a photo.  Later, after it began to rain we rewrote and sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as “Four Days Ago.” The new lyrics were a tribute to our life back in New York without backpacks, blisters or soggy shoes. Our relationship has always been playful, and it is this ability to find lightness just about anywhere that has carried us through separations, health scares and family tragedies over the last eight years.

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Wisques, 82 km

At the Abbey de Notre Dame everything is magic. Sister Lucie is a nun unlike any other, and not just because she makes jokes about there being vodka in my water bottle.  She is warm and open and completely unaffected when I tell her that I am not Christian.  Instead, she makes me pose for photos for a bulletin board in the Abbey. The other visitors staying here include Marlene and Christian, a couple of pilgrims headed in the opposite direction to Canterbury (more on them later) and Claire, a beautiful girl who is engaged but has a spark of wanderlust she can’t shake that terrifies her. In the morning she walks with me on my way out of the village and we talk about boys and love and travel. She reminds me of myself when I first realized I’d never be happy staying still and I tell her what I wish someone had told me when I was lost in my fantasies of adventure, feeling guilty for wanting more than the assigned trajectory. “You are not alone,” I say and she is visibly relieved.  When we reach the end of town, she stops, ‘I can’t go any further with you, I’m scared I won’t find my way back.”  We hug and part ways, at least for now.

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Thérouanne, 95 km

I reach Thérouanne just in time for an afternoon break and walk into a large, airy café filled with houseplants and watercolor paintings, more like someone’s lovingly arranged living room than a stopover for strangers. The owner, and the only other person in the place is as carefully put together as her space and is in deep contrast with my sweaty, red face and dusty hiking boots. Madame Michelle Boulot Delvart takes no notice of my appearance and offers me a beer. We make small talk until I mention that I live in the States and her face lights up. “I was in the States once with my son. He was in a triathlon,” she disappears behind a door and then reappears with a heavy folder that she puts in front of me. Inside are maps of California, photos of her and her son, of Death Valley, receipts and brochures, all of it perfectly preserved for over a decade.  In the course of an hour she goes through everything in the folder and I understand that this trip with her youngest child is one of her life’s fondest memories. Before I leave she shows me her back garden filled with rose bushes, jasmine, lettuce and raspberries and then she plucks a handful of lavender stems and hands them to me. The lavender has long since dried up, but I still carry the blossoms with me, a fragrant souvenir of an unexpected afternoon.

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Amettes, 112 km

I am ecstatic as I walk through fields of wheat and poppies in the morning.  I can hear this universal heartbeat made up of everything that buzzes and honks and sighs and aches and blooms and withers. It is all intertwined, a mess of imaginary wires holding the world together. I hear a plane above me and for a moment everything stops. I look up and see my eight-year-old self on her way to America staring down  at this grown up version of herself through the clouds. I am both of these Mashas at the same time. I can feel what they are both feeling and just for a second, I know that everything good that has ever happened to me is still unfolding somewhere in the pockets of the universe, that no one I’ve ever loved has ever been lost and all of the horrible experiences of my life were no more real than a bad dream. And then it was over. The plane became just a plane again and I was alone in a field in France, dumbfounded.

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Péronne, 200 km

In the hostel in Péronne I met Mayling and Andrew, two pilgrims from the U.K. walking as far as the Col of St. Bernard on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Of the handful of pilgrims walking the Via Francigena that I’d met so far, every one had already walked the Camino de Santiago, including these two. The Camino, it seems is the gateway drug for those of us with an addiction to thousand-year-old roads. Over a bottle of rosé and pizzas topped with anchovies to spicy sausage Andrew tells me about his career n the beading business.  “It’s not as exciting now, “he says “but it used to be that we would find a bead whose origins we didn’t know and we’d go chasing after it around the world, eventually tracking it down to one man in Ethiopia.”  I know think of him as the Indiana Jones of the jewelry business.

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Seraucourt-le-Grand, 226 km

At the camping in Seraucourt I bump into Anna and Max, two German pilgrims that I first met at the very beginning with Colin when all four of us were lost in the woods near Licques.  Even though we barely know each other, seeing them is like seeing old friends. We make pasta and salad and eat at a picnic table by their tent along with another pilgrim named James.

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After dinner I invite everyone back to the little waterfront house I’m staying in for a glass of wine. We sit on the dock, James and I cooling our feet in the pond until the moon comes up through the trees on the other side.  Though Anna is almost thirty years my senior, we giggle like a couple of teenage girls over nothing in particular while Max looks on, our stoic, paternal guardian. I love this moment.  I love that we are strangers who will all remember this night, this moon and this pond exactly so. A sliver of time only shared by us and even if we never see each other again, we will forever have this common ground.

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